Origins of Distributed Leadership

NCSL Distributed Leadership Full Report

There is no closed body of theory around the concept of distributed leadership. Different authors propose definitions without still having reached an agreement on the matter. Among them, perhaps the two most significant are Spillane and Gronn. Both raised the concept from their research and publications at the start of this decade.

Both approaches have their origin in the implementation of leadership in schools. They are based on the fact that the framework prevalent until the moment the leadership was focused on individuals and their positions is incomplete.

For Spillane, Halverson and Diamond, leadership must be understood as a distributed practice, stretched over the school’s social and situational contexts. In their scheme, leadership practice is not simply a function of an individual leader’s ability, skill, charisma and cognition. And this is especially true If expertise is distributed.

For Peter Gronn, the division of labour within organizations provides two fundamentally opposed roles, one focused on activities and tasks and the second controlled and performed. This simple and antagonistic view does not correspond with the real complexity of the natural world, where, in fact, a hybrid situation exists where the degree of distribution of the leadership role varies. The approach of Gronn, much more sophisticated from the conceptual point of view, deals with other aspects of distributed leadership from the perspective of the Complexity Theory (as an emerging pattern of collective behaviour when there is interdependence) and from the team approach (spontaneous collaboration, use of synergy, coordination).

Since then, distributed leadership has often been associated with shared, delegate, democratic, dispersed, etc. In an extraordinary research work by Bennet et al., all the literature on the subject is reviewed so far.


The authors identify three distinctive elements of distributed leadership among the analysed approaches. Firstly, distributed leadership highlights leadership as an emergent property of a group or network of interacting individuals. Secondly, distributed leadership suggests openness to the boundaries of leadership. This means that it is predisposed to widen the conventional set of leaders, thus, in turn, raising the question of which individuals and groups are to be brought into leadership or seen as contributors to it. Thirdly, distributed leadership entails the view that it is possible to forge a concerted dynamic representing more than the sum of the individual contributors. Initiatives may be inaugurated by those with relevant skills in a particular context, but others will then adopt, adapt and improve them within a mutually trusting and supportive culture.


  • Bennett, N., Wise, C., Woods, P., & Harvey, J. A. (2003). Distributed Leadership: a review of literature. Nottingham: NCSL National College for School Leadership, The Open University and University of Gloucestershire. (The Open University).
  • Gronn, P. (2002). “Distributed leadership as a unit of analysis.” The Leadership Quarterly, 13, 423–451. (ScienceDirect).
  • Spillane, J. P., Halverson, R., and Diamond, J. B. (2001) “Investigating School Leadership Practice: A Distributed Perspective.” Educational Researcher, 30 (3). April 2001 (JSTOR).
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